Special words to describe specific relationships?
November 14, 2014 4:58 PM   Subscribe

English does not have words for certain kinds of specific relationships, but other languages do. I am interested in learning examples of some of these words.

I recently spent the day with my sister-in-law's brother-in-law (i.e. my spouse's sister's husband's brother). He treated me like family and was a dear. So why is there no word to describe this relationship? Or is there?

I know some languages do have very specific relationship words. There is a Yiddish word for the relationship my parents have with my spouse's parents, for instance (they are 'machatunim' to each other). And I recall a university acquaintance from a Pacific Island country whose culture had specific forms of hello and goodbye to use when addressing their grandmothers.

What are some other examples of words like this to describe very specific relationships?
posted by JoannaC to Grab Bag (30 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
aburo - younger sibling
egbon - older sibling
posted by glasseyes at 5:00 PM on November 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

The radio show I co-host talked about some of these words in 2014 and in 2009.
posted by Mo Nickels at 5:02 PM on November 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

Bulgarian is good for this. A useful search term might be "kinship terms".
posted by cider at 5:33 PM on November 14, 2014

"Metamour" (the significant other of your significant other, who you are not romantic with as well) has come up in recent years in the polyamory community. (Along with "compersion" or "frubble" meaning the opposite of jealousy--that you're happy about their relationship even though you are not dating both of them).

But beyond that, I hear ya. What do I call my relatives' relatives?
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:34 PM on November 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Spanish has compadre and comadre, for the relationship between people who parents and godparents of the same person. (i.e. If I were the godmother of your kid, I would be your comadre and you would be my comadre. Your baby-daddy would be my compadre, and I would still be his comadre. The godfather would be compadre to both you and your baby-daddy).
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 5:43 PM on November 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Age order matters in Khmer, Vietnamese and Mandarin at least - big sister vs little sister, big aunty vs little aunty (I think related to your own parent in the birth order). And more generally becomes a term of respect for various people you have non-familial relationships with.
posted by viggorlijah at 5:56 PM on November 14, 2014

Swedish has mormor/morfar/farmor/farfar, where "mor" = mother and "far" = father. Mothermother, motherfather, fathermother, fatherfather. Now you know exactly which grandparent is being discussed.
posted by Lyn Never at 5:56 PM on November 14, 2014 [4 favorites]

If I recall correctly: in Chinese, there's no word for 'brother' and 'sister'; there are four words, for older brother, younger brother, older sister, and younger sister.

gēge - older brother
dìdì - younger brother
jiějiě - older sister
mèimei - younger sister
posted by showbiz_liz at 5:57 PM on November 14, 2014

Many languages around the world have different words for cousins whose related parents are same-sex siblings (often glossed into English as "parallel cousins") and cousins whose related parents are opposite-sex siblings ("cross cousins").

Typically when this is the case, marriages between one class of cousin are considered highly desirable, while marriages between the other class are forbidden as incest.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 5:59 PM on November 14, 2014

Spanish also has concuñado/a, (literally "co-brother/sister-in-law) which is a spouse of your spouse's siblings. There's a nice symmetry to the category, because at a typical family gathering, for example, you'll often have a core group of siblings, and then all their married-in spouses who are socially all on the same slightly subordinated/peripheral level.
posted by drlith at 6:01 PM on November 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

You're in luck, because this is one of the most well-studied/classic topics in the history of anthropology. Wikipedia's entry on kinship terminology is OK, and a search for kinship on archive.org will turn up dozens of specific kinship systems described by some of the most famous names in the discipline, e.g. Alfred Kroeber's California Kinship Systems. And speaking of kinship terms, you might know Kroeber better teknonymically as Ursula Le Guin's dad.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 6:06 PM on November 14, 2014 [7 favorites]

Not exactly what you are looking for, but many cultures and languages use the words for "cousin," "auntie," and "uncle" as generic terms for "sort of family-ish that is the same age-ish," "female sort of family-ish that is older," and "male sort of family-ish that is older."

Like your sister-in-law's brother-in-law? I'd just call him cousin, or even brother-in-law! Which is the same language as you (English) but a different usage.
posted by amaire at 6:09 PM on November 14, 2014

Oh, looking around a bit further, archive.org also has African Systems of Kinship and Marriage, which is a classic from the real heyday of all this as a research topic.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 6:14 PM on November 14, 2014

In Spanish we also have "concuñado/a", which is what your spouse's sister's husband's brother/sister is to you, and you to them.

The full definition is:

1. m. y f. Cónyuge de una persona respecto del cónyuge de otra persona hermana de aquella.
2. m. y f. Hermano o hermana de una de dos personas unidas en matrimonio respecto de las hermanas o hermanos de la otra.

1. Spouse of a person with regard to the spouse of a second person, sibling of the first.
2. Sibling of one of two people in a marriage, with regard to the siblings of the other spouse.
posted by kandinski at 6:19 PM on November 14, 2014

Australian Aboriginal languages have kinship systems far more detailed than English. Random example (and there is a LOT of diversity between language groups): Here is a family tree in Bininj Gunwok (the abbreviations are fairly straightforward, Z means sister). Distinctions can include not only gender (as in English), or age (as in Chinese), but also matri- vs patrilineal relationships, harmonic vs disharmonic generations (see how, in the Bininj Gunwok example, generations +2, 0 and -2 share many terms), skin, moiety, and more... Categories are conflated or differentiated in ways that they aren't in English. For example, in the bottom left of the Bininj Gunwok diagram, your son's daughter (SD) and son (SS) are both mawa, but your daughter's daughter (DD) and son (DS) are mamamah.

In traditional Aboriginal society, everyone has a kinship relation to you. Kinship governs who you can speak to, who you marry, which language you speak, where your country is. Many languages even incorporate kinship into their pronouns or verbs, so that when you talk about two men doing something, you don't just say "They did x" you say "Those two male non-siblings did x". I'm not at all an expert and may have some details wrong, but basically yeah, every Aboriginal language has a lot of very specific words for very specific relationships.
posted by flora at 6:26 PM on November 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

Hebrew or Yiddish apparently has a word for the relationship between two grandmothers who share a grandchild, ie the child's mother's mother and the child's father's mother.

Is there a word in any language for the relationship between a person's current spouse and their ex-spouse? Also - a word for your half-sibling's parent that is not your parent?
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 7:09 PM on November 14, 2014

Gujarati (spoken in the Indian state of Gujarat and in the Indian diaspora) has a whole bunch of specific terms, up to and including "Father's Oldest Brother's Wife."
posted by whitewall at 7:41 PM on November 14, 2014

Chinese have all sorts of words for all sorts of relations. Here's a good video: The Complicated Chinese Family Tree.
posted by ethidda at 7:52 PM on November 14, 2014

My husband uses Taiwanese kinship terms for all his aunts and uncles. I am confident I will never, ever get them all straight.
posted by town of cats at 8:46 PM on November 14, 2014

Check it! Kinship terminology.

Korean, like many Asian languages, has a different specific term of address for almost every possible combination of gender, relationship, and relative age. Polite speech in general uses titles and terms of address instead of simple pronouns or names, not just with family, but it goes bonkers with relatives.

For example:
older brother by a younger sister: 오빠, oppa
older brother by a younger brother: 형, hyeong
older sister by a younger sister: 언니, eonni
older sister by a younger brother: 누나, nunna
younger sibling (either gender) by an older sibling (either gender): 동생, dongsaeng
younger sister by an older sibling (either gender): 여동생, yeodongsaeng
younger brother by an older sibling (either gender): 남동생, namdongsaeng

Similarly, it has different words for paternal and maternal-side family members. For example, 고모, gomo, is your father's sister, while 이모, imo, is your mother's. You call your uncle by marriage 고모부, gomobu, or 이모부, imobu, which literally means "father's/mother's sister's husband". You call your uncle by blood, your father or mother's brother, something different, and you call his wife something different again. You call your maternal and paternal grandparents different things. You can combine them with "big" or "little" to indicate sibling order or along with "cousin", and you can really describe your individual relationship with quite a far-flung bunch of people extremely specifically and accurately with one word.

Many of these kinship terms are also used in other familiar relationships; for example you might call any intimate same-generation male "hyeong" or "oppa".
posted by peachfuzz at 9:15 PM on November 14, 2014

K'ichee' (and probably a lot of other Mayan languages, but K'ichee's the one I know) has a single word meaning "older same-sex sibling." A man's atz is his big brother, a woman's atz is her big sister. There's also a single word for "younger same-sex sibling." A man's chaq' is his little brother, a woman's chaq' is her little sister.

K'ichee' also marks possession using prefixes. Kinship terms almost always have a possessive prefix. So a man calls his own big brother watz and his little brother nuchaq' (the w- and the nu- both mean "my") and if you're talking about him in the third person you'd call his big brother ratz and his little brother uchaq' (the r- and the u- both mean "his/hers"). A woman calls her own big sister watz and her own little sister nuchaq', and if you're talking about her in the third person you'd call her big sister ratz and her little sister uchaq'.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:16 PM on November 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

In Heinlein's book Citizen of the Galaxy this is actually a plot point, and there's a pretty long discussion about it.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:21 PM on November 14, 2014

Here's how it's done in my neck of the woods. In Maori too, older and younger siblings are distinguished.

Maori kinship systems are more complicated than Anglo ones. In English they seem to get rendered down into "cousin" and "auntie" most of the time.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 9:31 PM on November 14, 2014

My sister's sister-in-law and I call each other sisters-in-law squared.
posted by ellieBOA at 11:23 PM on November 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

In Norwegian, there is

-farfar, farmor, mormor, morfar (as Lyn Never explains above, same in Swedish)

-oldefar, oldemor (great-grand-father, great-grand-mother?)
-tipp-oldefar, one generation older
-tipp-tipp-oldefar, another above there again
-tipp-tipp-tipp... you get it. All the way back to a single celled amoeba.

-"fetter" is your male cousin
-"kusine" is your female cousin
-"søskenbarn" is the Norwegian translation of English "cousins", literally means "sibling's kids"
-I think Sweden has a bit different definitions but with same words, which is a bit confusing

-grand-onkel, grand-ucle, grand-nephew, grand-whoemever, its the same in English isn't it? Your parent's uncles/aunts or similar direction. Add grand- multiple times for branching out. As in grand-grand-grand-grand-grand-aunt. Which would be quite a stranger, and probably very dead, don't talk to her and don't drink the green bubbling, smoking liquid she offers you.

-"tremenning" is your cousin once removed ( three lines away)
-"firmenning" is your cousin twice removed (four lines away)
-"fem-menning" is your... you get it. there's a word for EVERYONE ON THE PLANET! We're all n-mennings.

-"sviger" is in-law-prefix, as in sviger-mor (in-law mother) sviger-far (in-law dad), sviger-sønn (son) (etc etc)

-"svoger" is a sibling of someone you're married too or the other way around

-"step"-someone and "half"-someone, i suppose is in English too right?

Your example above would then be you where talking to your awesome "svoger-sisters's svoger-brother". And if you said that in a social setting in Norway everyone would be very quiet and thinking really hard for two minutes. And then go "m-hmmmmm"
posted by gmm at 3:38 AM on November 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Swedish has mormor/morfar/farmor/farfar, where "mor" = mother and "far" = father. Mothermother, motherfather, fathermother, fatherfather. Now you know exactly which grandparent is being discussed.

This also extends to aunts and uncles: morbror/moster/farbror/faster, bror = brother and ster is a suffix version of syster = sister. So you get morbror = motherbrother, etc.
posted by bjrn at 3:40 AM on November 15, 2014

Mod note: A couple of comments deleted. Sorry guys, I know it's an interesting post, but this isn't the part of the site for open chat / discussion, so we need to stick to answering the question. Thanks.
posted by taz (staff) at 6:41 AM on November 15, 2014

Persian has different words for maternal and paternal aunts/uncles (aunt خاله maternal, عمه paternal; uncle دایی maternal, عمو paternal).
In total there's 8 words for "cousin", in various combinations of "son/daughter of my maternal/paternal aunt/uncle".
posted by Gordafarin at 7:31 AM on November 15, 2014

Japanese distinguishes between "older sister/brother" and "younger sister/brother" in a couple of ways.

An older brother is ani or onii. ani often used with -uue but also with -san and sometimes the honorific is omitted. onii is invariably used with an honorific (usually -chan or -san but sometimes -sama). The word otouto means "younger brother" but it's never used in address. An older sibling will use a younger brother's name instead.

Likewise, an older sister is ane or onee. A younger sister is imouto in third person, but will be addressed with her name.

Other terms: oji == uncle, oba == aunt, ojii == grandfather, obaa == grandmother.

BUT... these words are used much more generally than that, quite often with people who are not relatives. A child will commonly address an unrelated older boy as "oniichan" and an older girl as "oneechan". It is proper to address any middle aged woman as "obasan" (though if she doesn't think she's middle aged, she may get mad) and likewise any middle aged man as "ojisan". It is very very common to address pretty much any old woman as "obaachan" (which translates pretty well as "granny") and old man as "ojiichan" (gramps). (The -chan honorific is diminuitive and familiar.)

Another usage: if one young woman addresses an unrelated young woman as "oneesama", that's gay. It implies a homosexual attraction.

Likewise when one young man addresses an unrelated young man as "oniisama". It implies that the speaker is (or would like to be) uke to the addressed's seme.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:00 PM on November 15, 2014

...oniisama/oneesama as "gay", a small correction: that's if there isn't any other reason for using -sama.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:38 PM on November 15, 2014

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